Animal sentience in UK law

17 May 2021

The government has recently announced plans to formally recognise in law the sentience of animals, that is the ability of animals to experience feelings like pain, joy and fear.

The Guardian reported that it will be enshrined “in UK law for the first time” and Sun columnist Rod Liddle wrote: “It’s a shame it’s taken us so long to recognise it officially.”

This will be the first time animal sentience has been explicitly recognised in UK law, but it was recognised explicitly in EU law which applied in the UK until recently. Animal welfare laws in the UK also already essentially acknowledge that animals can feel pain and suffer, but sentience has not been spelled out in as many words. 

EU law

Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union states:

“In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings [emphasis ours], pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals…”

Following the vote to leave the EU, in 2018 the UK parliament passed the EU Withdrawal Act which, among other things, removed the legal authority of the EU treaties on the UK.

The Green Party’s then-leader Caroline Lucas had proposed an amendment to copy over article 13 into UK law but it was defeated, meaning that currently UK law does not explicitly mention animal sentience.

UK law

As mentioned, animal sentience is the principle that animals can experience feelings. 

The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 in England and Wales (and equivalent laws in Scotland and Northern Ireland), make it an offence not to take reasonable steps to protect an animal you are responsible for from suffering. 

The UK Centre for Animal Law (A-law) says that acknowledging that some animals can experience suffering is an implicit acknowledgement of animal sentience

Furthermore, for the purposes of the Act an animal is defined as a vertebrate but there is an allowance for relevant authorities to extend that definition to invertebrates if it can be proved that “animals of the kind concerned are capable of experiencing pain or suffering.”

While the law itself doesn’t explicitly refer to sentience, the explanatory notes do, saying: “The Act will apply only to vertebrate animals, as these are currently the only demonstrably sentient animals. However, section 1(3) makes provision for the appropriate national authority to extend the Act to cover invertebrates in the future if they are satisfied on the basis of scientific evidence that these too are capable of experiencing pain or suffering.”

The government has said it will introduce an obligation for ministers to take animal welfare into account when developing policy but, currently, UK law is not equivalent to article 13.

While article 13 imposes “a duty on States to pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals when formulating and implementing policies”, the law in England prohibits “the causing of cruelty to, and the neglect of, protected animals.”

A-law adds: “It is fair to say, however, that the legal effect of Article 13 is uncertain…

“EU law permits some practices, such as the force-feeding of geese for foie gras production, which are not permitted in the UK for reasons relating to animal welfare. 

“This does not, however, mean that Article 13 has no value. While it permits animals’ welfare requirements to be overridden by competing interests, public bodies must be able to demonstrate that they have taken into account the impact of their policies on animal welfare.”

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